Clemson and the College Rankings

Our response to the controversy over Clemson University's strategy to rise in the college rankings


Clemson University is facing both controversy and criticism after Catherine Watt, a director of a research center at Clemson, made a presentation this week at the annual forum of the Association for Institutional Research in Atlanta about the aggressive steps the university has taken to meet its goal of rising in the U.S. News America's Best Colleges rankings.

It's no secret that Clemson's goal is to become a top 20 public research university: There's a whole section of the school's website called "Why Top 20" that explains the rationale behind the goal and what the potential benefits would be for students and the university. (Currently, Clemson ranks 22nd in that "best publics" list, up from 38th in 2001.) Yesterday, Clemson responded to Watt's presentation with a prepared statement after both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education had articles on her presentation.

I was at the conference and attended Watt's presentation. The most controversial parts were some of the techniques she suggested that Clemson has been using to meet its goal and how open Watt was in discussing the university's strategy publicly. According to her presentation, Clemson took precise steps to improve in some U.S. News ranking variables: create more small classes of under 20 students and fewer large classes with 50 or more students, boost the SAT scores and high school class standing of incoming students, increase freshman retention and graduation rates, decrease the student-to-faculty ratio, improve faculty salaries, and more accurately report data. In addition, the presentation implied that Clemson's peer survey respondents gave other universities they compete against a below average rating, though this claim has been vigorously denied by the school.

U.S. News produces the rankings to provide the public—in particular, families of collegebound students—one tool that offers a clear perspective on differences among the options in higher education. We realize we can't control how this information gets used in the higher ed community, but the rankings are not meant to drive the mission or any other strategic goals that a university may be trying to attain. It's up to the Clemson University community to decide whether rising in the college rankings is a goal it ought to pursue.

In terms of the reputation survey, U.S. News has safeguards in place to prevent strategic voting from affecting the results. We subtract a few of the highest and lowest scores from respondents before the results are calculated in order to prevent downgrading or upgrading from altering the results. We are confident that such voting practices by respondents are not affecting the results of the reputation survey in any meaningful statistical way.